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Let’s Cut Slack Some Slack

Yesterday, Slack released its most recent diversity report, and the response has been lukewarm at best. “For all its good intentions, three years later this privately held company used by five million people and valued by investors at nearly $4 billion is not much more diverse than many of its peers,” writes Jessica Guynn of USA Today. “Of its hundreds of employees, relatively few are people of color and, while it has a very strong showing for women in technical and management roles, few women hold leadership roles.”

Since its last report in February 2016, Slack’s workforce has more than doubled, to almost 800 employees across five countries. From that point of view, it does feel like a setback.

A couple of things to think about. There have been some pretty big changes in the way Slack now reports their diversity data. First, they’re now surveying only U.S.-based employees, to remain in compliance with local reporting requirements in other countries. And second, they’re now presenting their data in line with the methods required by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It will make apples-to-apples comparisons with other tech companies easier going forward. (Click through for the whole explanation.)

From the report:

Globally, 43.5% of our workforce is comprised of women, unchanged from our last report in February 2016.

  • 48.1% of our managers around the world are women, up from 43% last year.
  • Women make up 29.8% of our Technical organization globally, up from 24.5%, last year.

In the U.S., 11.5% of our workforce is comprised of people from one or more underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups.²

  • 10.7% of our U.S. managers are from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic backgrounds.
  • 11.4% of our U.S. Technical³ organization is comprised of people from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups.

This year, we’ve looked at LGBTQ and disability status specifically among U.S. employees.

  • 7.8% of our U.S. workforce and 7.6% of our U.S. managers identify as LGBTQ.
  • 1.7% of our U.S. workforce identifies as having a disability.

And they acknowledge that they have more work to do:

We have strong representation of women company wide and in technical roles. However, that representation, and representation of underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups, declines at more senior levels in the organization. That means we need to cultivate future leaders from these groups over time, and do more to ensure our processes and workplace are fair and equal in opportunity.

Still, I remain optimistic about Slack. Their reporting remains clear and transparent. And, I’ve rarely encountered a start-up executive who gets as consistently high praise from employees on the human side of leadership as does CEO Stewart Butterfield. Here’s just one example, from a raceAhead story from 2016 called “What It’s Like To Be Young, Black and Trying to Make it In Silicon Valley.” It’s a profile of 21-year-old Josuel Musambaghani, then a Slack summer intern. He’d been a two-time Code2040 Fellow, a Google-funded non-profit which is doing a terrific job helping talented young technologists who come from non-traditional talent pools – black and Latino, specifically – succeed in tech. After a rocky start at a different firm, he found a home at Slack.

“I joined Slack because it’s clear that the people at the highest levels, they do care about diversity,” he says. That was affirmed when Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield circulated a memo after the police shootings in Louisiana and Minneapolis, denouncing the events and expressing understanding for anyone who was feeling traumatized. “It was amazing,” he said. “I really feel supported working here.”

But even if they provide a great work experience, there are many reasons why companies are going to struggle with diversity. We need those numbers to help us light the way, so keep ’em coming. As we’re learning from artificial intelligence (see below) when the standing start is a baseline racist world, there is no easy solve. So, in the quest for inclusion, we’re continually betting on the strategies not yet found, the questions still unasked, the zeitgeist coming around the bend. You have to be looking for it to find it.

On Point

Artificial Intelligence is everywhere, and so are the biases it learnsLeft to their own devices, ahem, artificial intelligence will pick up and replicate all the biases that exist in the real world. It starts with text and spreads from there, according to a recent study published in Science magazine. “Without any supervision, a machine learning algorithm learns to associate female names more with family words than career words, and black names as being more unpleasant than white names,” reports Angela Chen in the Verge. She follows up with a terrific list of other relevant studies, and reports on what responsible researchers hope to do about the problem. “AI is biased because it reflects effects about culture and the world and language,” says one. More diverse creators will certainly make a difference, but that can’t erase the bias that already exists. What does work is vigilance, and that’s a team sport. “Computer-generated bias is everywhere we look,” said another researcher. Reminding people to adjust for it will actually help.The Verge

Diary of a black Mad Woman: The first African American woman is being inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame
Carol H. Williams, who joined the advertising world in 1969, recalls being asked by an older white woman colleague if she thought black people were happier as slaves. “I said, ‘You need to turn your television off,’ Williams told the New York Times. “She wasn’t going to get me distracted with that ignorance and irrelevance where I couldn’t do my job or get focused.” Williams went on to create, among other notable campaigns, Secret deodorant’s infamous tagline: “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” (The Pillsbury doughboy? That was her.) Williams’s recognition comes at a time when the ad industry is under pressure to diversify. The Hall of Fame was established in 1948, and this is the first time a black woman with a creative agency background – the “Mad Men” of TV fame – has ever been included.
New York Times

Major League Baseball gets a Gift
Gift Ngope is the first African-born baseball player to reach the U.S. major leagues. “Everything is breathtaking right now,” he said after officially joining the Pittsburg Pirates yesterday. The five-foot-eight-inch shortstop literally grew up in baseball, raised with his brother by a single mom who worked for the Randburg Mets, a recreational team in Randburg, South Africa. They lived in a tiny room attached to the team’s clubhouse. “It’s a dream come true for me,” he told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Ngope, 27, is described by others as a defensive genius; click through for the real baseball talk. And look who’s stepping up to the plate: Ngope’s 19 year-old brother Victor, who now plays for the Gulf Coast League Pirates.
Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Review: Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN” is the soundtrack for the resistance
I’d been waiting for Greg Tate’s take on “DAMN” – the long-time critic is a living testament to the idea, as he archly observed when the Village Voice hired him in the late 1980’s, that “Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren’t strangers to those communities.” He provides a context that is unmatched, and his splendiferous writing goes toe to toe with Lamar’s own extraordinary artistry. There is a reason why both men capture the imaginations of those for whom Black Lives Matter. You don’t have to like or listen to Kendrick Lamar to understand what the DAMN fuss is all about. A must read.
Village Voice

An ad from P&G featuring a transgender mom ignites a heated debate about civil rights in India
Billed as a true story, the ad from the P&G brand Vicks begins with the voice of a young girl named Gayatri, who explains that she is heading to boarding school to make her mom proud. We eventually learn that Gayatri is adopted and that her “Mummy” is a transgender NGO leader named Gauri Sawant, both of whom play themselves in the video. Gayatri was adopted when she was six, after her birth mom, a sex worker, died of AIDS. “In our civics text books we read that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights.” Gayatri says. “Then why is my mom denied them?” Although a “third gender” was legally recognized in India in 2014, the legality of transgender adoption is still debated. Also under debate: Did P&G co-opt a cause to sell more VapoRub?
Women In The World

The Woke Leader

There really is a word for that!
Many thanks to raceAhead reader Christine Luo, who responded to yesterday’s musing about wonderful German words that have no direct translation in English with some of her own favorites. “Like Kabelsalat (that tangle of cables) or Kummerspeck (weight gain from emotional eating),” she suggested. She also recommends this beautiful book, “Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.” I learned some useful gems like “trepverter” – literally “staircase words” – the Yiddish word for the witty comeback you only think of after the fact.  And for any ally who buries their head in the sand and acts like nothing is wrong when clearly something is, you’d be guilty of “struisvogelpolitiek” or “ostrich politics” in the Netherlands. If you see something, say something, people. Dank je.

Cool Pope does a TED talk about inclusion
His posted bio was delightfully simple: Pope Francis is the Bishop of Rome and the Head of the Roman Catholic Church. His message was equally delightful if a bit harder to put into practice. He called for solidarity and inclusion, which, after all, is the true nature of things. “How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion,” he said. “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.” He had a direct message to corporate leadership, as well. “Only by educating people to a true solidarity will we be able to overcome the ‘culture of waste,’ which doesn’t concern only food and goods but, first and foremost, the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people.”

On the annivesary of the L.A. riots, Korean Americans have stories to tell
Korean residents call it sa-i-gu, for the date it all started: 4-2-9. Twenty-five years ago, thousands of Korean Americans had their lives uprooted and their businesses sacked or burned during the riots that erupted in the aftermath of the acquittals of the officers who had beaten Rodney King. Now, twenty five years later, many of their kids are grown and determined to share their own stories of what the riots meant to and for them. The Los Angeles Times profiles two of them. One, an actor and filmmaker named Justin Chon, created a gritty, black and white film called “Gook,” which got some notice at Sundance. His father lost their shoe store in the riots when Chon was ten. “The Korean American experience isn’t going to get told,” he says. “If I don’t take it upon myself to make even the cheap, cheap iPhone version, we’ll never have an opportunity to tell our side of the story.”
Los Angeles Times


The most impactful detriment to diversity in Silicon Valley is the idea of “culture fit.” Employees are actively encouraged to suggest friends or former colleagues for open roles. The premise is if the employee and the candidate have a congenial relationship outside of the company, the new recruit is more likely to work well with other staffers. The recommended candidates are given preference or special attention during the recruiting process. It should come as no surprise then that there aren’t more applicants of color to select from.
—Mark Luckie